or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Heavy Topics

Apropos of nothing, you really owe it to yourself to read this excellent article by New Yorker medical writer Atul Gawande on the difficulty of deciding when to not pursue medical treatment at the end of life. It's a tough read that will stir up all kinds of messy emotions, but Gawande is a terrific writer (you should read his ghastly piece about the mystery of itching, too, and while you're at it this horrifying discussion of the complications of childbirth) and well worth your time.


There were some really stupid typos in Slate, as ever, and I was going to deride them, but really I think I'm done with that. It seems pointless to keep harping on the many, many typos I find in my everyday reading, when nothing will ever change, not in Slate or anywhere else, not if publications refuse to hire people to copy-edit their text--and they will refuse this, because it's not cost-effective, and any notion of caring about such things, in the publishing industry or the public at large, is dying.

There is an interesting series of articles in Slate about the periodic table of elements, and the most recent is about the curious fact that more than a few of the table's elements have symbols that don't match their names well if at all. Any young science student will have been puzzled by the fact that the symbol for lead is Pb; if they're lucky, they will have had their teacher explain that it's from the Latin word for lead, "plumbum", from the time when Latin was the international language of science, and further that "plumbum" is the source of the English words "plumbing", since pipes were made of lead, and "plumb bob", since a heavy, non-rusting lead weight was the obvious metal to use for such a device.

One of the biggest puzzles for the novice chemist is the symbol for tungsten, which is W; easily solved when you learn that the German name for the metal is wolfram, but this leaves another, bigger puzzle, which is where "tungsten" comes from and why we use it. As it turns out, "tungsten" is a Swedish word meaning "heavy stone"; the "-sten" part is an obvious cognate to "stone" (and German "Stein"), but the "tung-" part appears to have no relatives in English, certainly not the "tung" of "tung oil" (which is the oil from a Chinese tree), nor the "tung" which was an older spelling of the word "tongue" for reasons that are too complicated to get into right now, and I won't even promise to deal with it later, since we all know what my promises are worth, blogwise.

Amusingly, the Swedes call tungsten wolfram, which means that they don't even use their own word for it.


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